Calendar proves that beauty is ageless

Women's group proves that beauty is ageless

June 27, 2000|By SUSAN REIMER

THE LADIES of Rylstone Calendar, illustrated with discreet nude photos of English matrons, has crossed the Great Pond to sink or swim in the land of liposuction.

Reconfigured to cover 18 months instead of 12 and beginning with June 2000 instead of January, it hit U.S. bookstores in time for Mother's Day, and what began as a self-mocking fund-raiser continues its metamorphosis into a phenomenon.

The calendar was the inspiration of members of the Women's Institute of Rylstone in Yorkshire, a silver-haired sisterhood of the pearls-and-twin-set set that meets monthly to hear lectures on homespun topics and raise money for charity.

One of its fund-raising staples has been a calendar that features garden and landscape photos taken by the membership. A few hundred would be printed and sold to raise a few bob for a favorite cause.

But when the husband of one of the members was stricken with leukemia, a joke became a dare and the women decided to create a calendar featuring their naked selves to raise money for leukemia research.

It took less convincing than you might think for the middle-aged membership of the Women's Institute of Rylstone to bare all for the photographer-husband of one of them - and just about as much red wine as you might expect.(One of the photos in the 18-month calendar shows the women relaxing between takes - in bathrobes with empties on the table in front of them.)

The women - wearing pearls and nothing else - are posed at a domestic task. An occasional nipple is visible, and one slightly lumpy bottom, but that is all. All else is artfully hidden by a mixing bowl, a flower pot or a wine press.

The women look healthy and happy and proud and at ease with themselves.

And the calendar has been a smashing success. A special meeting was called to discuss whether they could sell more than 1,000. But it sold out of 88,000 copies, raising upwards of a half-million dollars for research.

Since the calendar, the ladies have posed for a Christmas card and a billboard advertising laundry detergent, and they have strolled down a runway modeling lingerie to thunderous applause. There is even a movie deal in the works.

All the proceeds go to fight the disease that claimed John Baker, whose widow, Angela, is Miss February, pictured at piano playing "Jerusalem," a hymn about England's beauty that is sung at the opening of each meeting.

"This is not about looks or age, it's about spirit. I like to think of it as a celebration of women in full bloom," said Tricia Stewart, who turned to Angela Baker at a meeting and whispered the sarcastic suggestion that became the calendar.

"The unintentional side effect has been to change the perception of the older woman," said Stewart, who poses as Miss October at the wine press. "But that wasn't why we did it."

Workman, the U.S. publisher, says its printing of 116,000 is selling extremely well here in the land of Brandi Chastain and jog bras and washboard stomachs.

But my guess is it isn't being purchased by men who want to look at these naked bodies, but rather by women who are silently cheering the women of Rylstone.

This is, after all, the Mecca of youth and bone-thin beauty. Of firm breasts and waspish waists and legs as narrow at the thigh as they are at the calf. Thick and lumpy don't cut it here in the colonies.

I wish it were true that the Rubenesque bodies of middle-aged women were henceforth to be desirable thanks to the bold women of Rylstone, but I doubt it.

Liz Taylor isn't going to get on the cover of People wearing a Jennifer Lopez scarf dress. The magazine might salute her spunky recovery from brain surgery with a photo of her short-cropped white hair, but this country hasn't wanted to see Liz Taylor's body since 1958 and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

The problem is that the female population of the United States is aging rapidly, but not many of us are growing up. We have Jennifer Lopez daydreams in Liz Taylor bodies. Every birthday means another body part to conceal.

When we look at ourselves naked - if we do at all - we compare ourselves not with the women of Rylstone, but with the girls next door. And we are disappointed, resentful, full of longing and discontent.

What sets the women of Rylstone apart, I think, is not that they had the courage to pose naked for a calendar photo, but they believed someone wanted to see them that way.

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